There’s one rule I always pay a lot of attention to when looking at young players in academy set-ups.
When a province recruits a player straight out of secondary school, that player has something special about them. There are exceptions to this rule, of course, and not every top talent goes into the full academy right after getting their leaving cert but as a general rule, anyone brought in that quick has something about them.
Sure, recruiting that early is not without risk – remember that these are 18 or 19-year-old young men – but you take that risk because of that something special that marked them out to you in the first place.
When Munster recruited Thomas Ahern straight out of St Augustines and Waterpark RFC in Waterford, it wasn’t hard to work out why.
When we’re assessing Thomas Ahern, you can’t talk about anything substantial until you’ve looked at his all-round athleticism.
When you’ve got a second row forward clocking in at 6’9″ your mind automatically turns to a player with certain athletic limitations but Ahern completely smashes those preconceptions almost immediately.
Ahern is almost the opposite.
Ahern’s athleticism is rooted in his time in the backs – where he played as recently as 2017 – and so much of his work in open play is based on this learned skillset. He’s got the agility, jump and dexterity of a winger under the high ball, for example.
There are constant examples of this during the U20 Six Nations.
Yes, there are second rows that are effective high ball chasers and restart specialists on both sides of the ball but this is an area that Ahern has really stood out amongst his peers at this age group.
He’s big, he’s unnaturally quick for his size, he’s got a big vertical leap and he’s got a massive wingspan.
On this GIF, he travels roughly 15m from the halfway to just outside the 22 in just 3.6 seconds.
At the peak of his (unassisted) jump he’s roughly level with the player he’s competing with while adjusting in mid-air to take the ball.
And that’s before we get to his finish after claiming the ball, which shows formidable strength and agility all on its own. He’s not just a jump and catch artist – which would be impressive enough as it is – he’s also got the dexterity and skillset to make something happen after the take. It’s an across the body offload in this instance.
Ahern’s standout try against Scotland in the U20 Six Nations showed his raw speed and endurance in pretty clear terms. Ahern keeps up with the break from just outside the Irish 22 and when he takes the ball on the Scottish 10m line, he actually accelerates through the break to outpace the two wingers (Irish and Scottish) that are tracking him.
At 6’9″ and approximately 110kg, this is a remarkable display of athleticism. When you look at the posts up angle, you can see how natural his running gait is.
Long, efficient strides, real pace, real acceleration and the power to finish after the scrag.
To say that he’s incredibly comfortable at making clean line breaks is somewhat of an understatement – up until three years ago, that would have been his primary function as a back – so it should come as no surprise that he’s also adept at supporting breaks as they develop.
Ahern keeps his depth here excellently here and has the speed and agility to keep up with this break up the field. That’s a great added extra to have in your second row but much of a second row’s primary interaction with the ball will come during settled phase play. How does Ahern stack up here?
He’s well able to handle the ball in advanced positions away from the ruck.
This kind of position – on the outside of a two-man midfield hit up aligning off the #10 – is a really good spot for him.
He’s elusive with the ball in hand, well capable of passing the ball out before contact and has got a range of options after the contact.
Watch his footwork to get past the initial contact and then the chicken-wing offload to Hyde.
It was forward but the intention and the ability to get his hands free to even attempt the offload is a key part of what Ahern offers in open play – variation.
He can truck it up fairly conventionally from these positions too but he isn’t just running into bodies – there’s that step off his left to beat the first tackler and the power and length to make an effective stretch over the advantage line in a great central position.
Off #9, Ahern is a growing threat. Trucking straight into contact isn’t where I think Ahern is suited – you just don’t see him do it – so even when he’s taking the ball tight off the ruck, his footwork is still a vital part of his approach to contact situations.
Here he stands up white #2 and steps hard of his right and then burrows through the static contact for a big gain deep in the English 22.
Again though, I feel Ahern is best suited as the outside option if you’re carrying off #9 in a pod of three. When he’s the hinge runner on a tight pod of forwards like this, he can really show off his timing onto the ball.
Just watch his actions as the late runner in that pod.
Footwork, agility in contact, enough respect established to draw the two on one, and then awareness after the tackle to offload to a runner hitting the space.
That isn’t to say that he’s limited to being a late arrival runner off #9 because he’s also shown real ability in distributing the ball back on a screen and tipping it on to a recessed runner to go with his established offloading threat.
Ahern looks like a guy who spends a lot of time working on the small details of his attacking game. His animation when he’s not taking the pass is consistently good and adds to the “gravity” he displays on attack.
“Gravity” in this context means the number of eyes he draws on himself during attacking sets, be it off #10 or off #9. His animation takes a fraction of attention away from the real carrier and creates a half a second of space for others to work.
We’ve covered his work off #10 and #9, but from close range as a pick and go carrier, Ahern has also shown proficiency. This would normally be expected to be an area of strength for your second row and it’s one where Ahern is showing real promise.
He has had a few hiccups in this area of the game during the early parts of the Six Nations, notably a few knock-ons at the base of the ruck during pick and drive plays.
This doesn’t look like a systemic issue, more than it is an occasional downside of having the wingspan and leg length that he does. If Ahern is a little hasty with his technical approach to the pick and go, he can get unbalanced and find his own momentum working against him, forcing a handling error.
But this was something that he clearly worked on during the Six Nations because he showed real power later in the Championship.
In these examples, you can see Ahern getting low and long, which allows him to drive his full height low across the surface with latched support carriers helping him out. Instead of getting bunched up and unstable, he gets a balanced split-legged address of the ball pre-carry and can use his leg drive to push him under the English cover tackle to score the try.
His at-pace approach to pick and goes is probably the weakest part of his game with the ball in hand but it’s one that he’s actively addressing with real results.
Another area where I feel he needs a bit of work is his offensive breakdown. It’s not bad by any means and he does have decent instincts there but I’ve found that, on occasion, he doesn’t project his size there fully. Again though, this is to be expected from a recent enough convert to the forwards and he doesn’t really have any bad habits that have to be coached out of him.
Moments like these are where I feel he needs to push on a bit.
He’s tracking the break for a possible offload or pop off the floor right up until the last second but I’d like for him to be more cleanout focused in this moment. A slightly earlier dip for the ruck would allow him to project through strongly on this breakdown.
It works out OK in this instance because he’s able to pry Wales #13 off the ball relatively easily but had this been a flanker or another forward, it might not have gone our way.
I’d like him to get low and drive through and up here, rather than take this “roll” approach but I appreciate that this is a nitpick. Ahern’s first and best instinct is to cycle into the line as an attacking asset and in that regard, he’s an extremely high potential player with a wide array of passing, carrying and running options off #9, #10 and beyond that mark him out as the prototypical modern forward.
It seems like a natural thing to compare him to Leinster’s James Ryan given they play in the same position and the natural need to find a Leinster/Munster dichotomy but I feel that they are two very different players when it comes to their work on attack during phase play and on the set-piece.
Ryan is very much a heavy carrier with strong attacking ruck fundamentals but Ahern reminds me more of Brodie Retallick in both their size and build profile and their skill set with the ball in hand.
That isn’t to say that Thomas Ahern is a sure-fire bet to be World Player of the Year or anything like that but when I see Ahern’s comfort with the ball in space, his length, his wingspan, his athleticism, I see a guy closer to Brodie Retaillick than, say, a Paul O’Connell or a Donncha O’Callaghan.
A lot will depend on how Ahern fills into his frame as a senior professional. There is a sweet spot between how much weight your frame can carry at a maximum and how much suits your game. George Kruis, for example, was 14st 6lbs (92kg) when he joined the Saracens academy and has put on five stone (31kgs) in the years since that point because playing at 19st 5lbs (123kg) as he currently does suits his role as a tighthead lock with big roles at offensive breakdowns, in the scrum and on both sides of the shove during the maul.
Ahern is unlikely to be used as a ruck cleaning, heavy pushing tighthead lock in his career so there’s probably no need to throw on too much extra weight that might slow his natural pace and agility but he will need to go up by a few KG in my opinion. James Ryan is apparently under 110kg (17st) if you believe the Irish and Leinster sites but I think he’s much closer to 115kg (18st) or higher these days just from the eye test.
Ahern will be under pressure to get up to that 115kg mark if he’s got full international caps in his future as that seems to be the minimum for a second row at the elite level these days. I think going too far above that weight might take away more from his work in open play than it gives you elsewhere, but that’s just my opinion based on what I’ve seen him do now at 110kg.
In the next part of this series coming this week, I’ll be looking at Ahern’s work in defence and at the set-piece.